More than nine years since have passed since Operation BURNT FROST. I hadn’t thought about the event in a long time. While it was the highlight of my newly-minted weapons officer career at Cavalier AFS, ND, after it was over there was little more said about the event. However, the strategic implications from BURNT FROST are still felt. This article is a reflection of strategic build-up, planning, execution and aftermath of the event.

The space domain changed as we knew it on 11 Jan 2007. China intentionally destroyed the Fengyun 1C weather satellite. A missile impacted the satellite creating the largest orbital debris event in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) history, with more than 5,500 pieces of debris.[1] There is little to be done about space debris except hope space is big enough it doesn’t impact your satellite and burns up in the atmosphere upon reentry. Fengyun 1C was impacted at 537 miles above the earth’s surface, and an estimated 5,000 number of pieces from that event were still orbiting in space in 2013.[2] The international community decried China’s ‘reckless behavior’ that every space-faring country will be concerned with for decades but had little recourse. The Outer Space Treaty, signed by 105 countries, only bans weapons of mass destruction in space, not the conventional weapon China used.[3] Lawfully, China did nothing wrong, but this act made space more dangerous for everyone.

The US had previously demonstrated an ASAT capability with a weather satellite just like China did but with a missile off an F-15. Before the Cold War was over, on 13 Sept 1985, the US used an ASM-135 to impact Solwind P78-1 solar laboratory 326 miles above the earth. The most of the resulting 285 pieces quickly reentered the atmosphere.[4]  While the event was a strategic demonstration, the USAF had to complete the test before the Congressional Test Ban on Anti-Satellite weapons. The international community was worried about this event but in 1985 fewer countries and companies had orbiting satellites. The political statement was there, but the danger to orbiting satellites other than the target was nil.

Maj. Wilbert “Doug” Pearson successfully launched an anti-satellite, or ASAT, missile from a highly modified F-15A Sept. 13, 1985 over Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. He scored a direct hit on a satellite orbiting 340 miles . (Photo: Edwards Air Force Base)

These two events were the strategic impetus to Operation BURNT FROST. USA-193 was the cornerstone of the Future Imagery Architecture (FIA), a $5B endeavor to build a “technologically audacious” generation of new spy satellites.[5] It became the most spectacular and expensive failure in the history of American spy satellites.  The prime contractor knew the lofty technological goals for the satellite were not achievable.  The satellite’s requirements were numerous, as various intelligence and military services competed to influence the design.[6] Real estate on a satellite was hard to acquire, and military planners needed to optimize each cubic inch. USA-193 was launched in December 2006 and almost immediately lost contact with ground stations.

Two months later, China destroyed Fengyun 1C.

I showed up at Cavalier AFS in October of 2007 understanding little of the strategic implications of Fengyun 1C destruction. All I knew was the breakup caused more UCTs (uncorrelated targets) for the PARCS (Perimeter Acquisition Rapid Characterization System) radar to track in space. The amount of orbital debris was acutely felt as well as a hope that type of breakup was a one-time event. The words of space being a congested, contested, and competitive environment was drilled into my head. Little did I know what role I would play in that big, violent breakup only months later.

Cavalier PARCS northeast oblique, showing phased array radar face.

A new year, new space possibilities. A tasking came down to the weapons officers of space surveillance radars to develop a plan for how they would deal with tracking a satellite breakup. My plan was to go on backup power to keep the radar up and running (since power in ND in winter is not always reliable), add more people to our usually two-person crew to keep track of UCT sizes and create a temporary breakup procedure because depending on breakup size the crew could be dealing with large numbers of UCTs for hours. We played the plan out in ROC (review of concept) drills and modeled the best we could in the simulator. After squadron approval, I sent my plan to my ADCON and OPCON chains. This plan became the model for all other radar stations. Not because it was the best plan, but probably because Cavalier AFS had the only full-time weapons and tactics flight in the 21st Space Wing to work on the problem.

That humble plan would become the basis for what CAFS accomplished during the event. We were cryptically told of the shoot down of USA-193. The assumptions I made to guide the building of the plan went out the window as the event got closer. Everyone wanted to know what we were doing in more detail than ever before. The plan was reworked a thousand times.

On 20 Feb 2008 at 10:26 am, USA-193 was destroyed in orbit by an SM-3 missile from the USS Lake Erie (CG70).[7] Then the real work began. PARCS was confronted with more pieces at one time than we had ever seen. The augmented crew was trying to identify the biggest piece of debris, but the amount of debris was overwhelming. The biggest piece of debris was important as it was the fuel canister loaded with hydrazine, the propellant to move USA-193 around. If this fuel canister survived reentry it would cause a natural disaster depending on where it landed.

We worked for hours tracking debris. The system alarms got more rampant as the breakup settled out into a sort of debris orbit that we and the other space surveillance units would deal with for days. The destruction happened a mere 153 miles from the earth’s surface. Within 48 hours, most of the debris reentered the atmosphere. All the remaining debris from USA-193 reentered within 40 days. No piece was large enough to survive reentry.[8]

All three ASAT events could be called reckless, but the closer to earth the impact the quicker the resulting debris is out of the orbital regime. In practical terms, the number of pieces of debris China owns increased with that one event; the pieces are mostly smaller than the SSN can track. The US and Russia own more than 85% of the debris mass in LEO because most of the debris are large mass objects such as rocket bodies and rocket stages.[9] Since the US and Russia own most of the debris mass, it is their responsibility to provide most of the tracking, warning, and attribution for space debris. The SSN tracks orbital debris using a predictive technique (spot checks rather than continuous tracking) because of SSN sensor limits, including the number of sensors, geographic distribution, capability, and availability. By mitigating the limits of the SSN with an increase in the variety of improved sensors in an increased number of countries, the picture of space can be more complete and better able to predict and prevent debris collisions.

The US has adopted “Orbital Debris Mitigation Standard Practices” to limit debris from liftoff and ending at disposal after a satellite’s useful life is over.[10] Some nations follow this lead, but no country or group possesses the sovereign authority or responsibility for regulating space. Instead, space is governed by a patchwork of informal industry standards, unofficial UN guidelines, and non-binding bilateral agreements. The US should take the lead as the nation most dependent on space and begin extensive negotiations with space-faring nations to establish a long-overdue non-legally binding international code of conduct for outer space activities. The current draft of the International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities proposed by the European Union is a good place to start, but the lack of leadership from the US will keep it from ratification. The non-legally binding code would be the most significant normative step to encapsulate the interests of most spacefaring countries while at the same time shaping and promoting sustainable outer space conduct.[11] Negotiations will be slow because of many countries’ understaffed space agencies.

While Operation BURNT FROST was great to be involved in with little long term effect on the space domain, the strategic implications still resonate. An ASAT is not only harmful to its intended target but others not directly involved in the conflict with the resulting debris.

 

NOTES:

[1] NASA, “Orbital Debris Quarterly Review”, Volume 19, Issue 1, January 2015. http://orbitaldebris.jsc.nasa.gov/newsletter/pdfs/ODQNv19i1.pdf

[2] Leonard David, “Effects of Worst Satellite Breakups in History Still Felt Today,” Space.com, January 23, 2013.

http://www.space.com/19450-space-junk-worst-events-anniversaries.html

[3] United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, “Outer Space Treaty.” http://www.unoosa.org/oosa/en/ourwork/spacelaw/treaties/introouterspacetreaty.html

[4] NASA, “History of On-Orbit Satellite Fragmentation, 13th Edition,” May 2004. https://orbitaldebris.jsc.nasa.gov/library/satellitefraghistory/13theditionofbreakupbook.pdf

[5] Phillip Taubman, “In Death of Spy Satellite Program, Lofty Plans and Unrealistic Bids,” New York Times, November 11, 2007.  http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/11/washington/11satellite.html?_r=0

[6] Phillip Taubman, “In Death of Spy Satellite Program, Lofty Plans and Unrealistic Bids.”

[7] AEGIS Ballistic Missile Defense, “One Time Mission: Operation Burnt Frost,” Missile Defense Agency.” http://www.mda.mil/system/aegis_one_time_mission.html

[8] MDA, “One-Time Mission: Operation Burnt Frost.” https://www.mda.mil/system/aegis_one_time_mission.html

[9] “Orbital Debris Quarterly Review”, Volume 19, Issue 1, January 2015, NASA http://orbitaldebris.jsc.nasa.gov/newsletter/pdfs/ODQNv19i1.pdf There is the assumption that these percentages are representative of all orbital debris since current numbers were not available for other orbits.

[10] “U.S. Government Orbital Debris Mitigation Standard Practices”, NASA, http://orbitaldebris.jsc.nasa.gov/library/usg_od_standard_practices.pdf

[11] Joan Johnson- Freese. Space as a Strategic Asset. Columbia University Press, 2007, pg 245 and 250.

Nicole Petrucci

Editor-in-Chief at Angle of Attack
Space cadet, combat knitter, kitty lover.

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